Beyond Money

“Help, oh Lord, for righteousness is at an end, for men of trust are extinct among people” Psalms, 12;2

Virtually nothing is clear about the Madoff affair. How he did it, to whom he did it, with whom he did it (the operation could not have been conducted single-handedly), how much money was involved, where did it come from, when did it all start, why were so many fooled and so few able to ask the simple questions that saved them – to all these and a host of other questions, there are no answers yet. Eventually, there probably will be, but to everyone except the not inconsiderable number of people who suffered direct and indirect losses, they are all secondary.

What is abundantly clear is that Bernie Madoff is a mass-murderer. We will never know the names of the people who are going to die because of him, but he has killed numerous would-be recipients of medical care, welfare support and just plain money to pay the bills with, from the host of charities and charitable people that he has wiped out; killed them as sure as if he took a gun and shot them through the heart. The bullets have been fired and will hit their anonymous targets. Some will die, others ‘merely’ suffer from sickness, pain, poverty and the rest – all due to Madoff.

It is, of course, true that many others – from the individuals, professionals and institutions who invested with him, to the regulatory agencies who ignored the claims and indications that it was all too good to be true – are guilty of crimes of commission and, especially, omission. But that doesn’t detract one iota from his personal, direct responsibility.

 Yet it goes much further than responsibility for misery and mass-murder. Madoff committed a crime against humanity, in the most fundamental sense of that over-worked and abused term. Typically, in the context of the entire financial crisis, it is the gentiles who have indentified this central issue, quicker and more clearly than the Jews, including – perhaps especially – the Orthodox, rules-observant but mostly morally-blind, ‘religious’ Jews.

 See, for example, an article by a guy called David Callaway at a financial site called MarketWatch (www.marketwatch.com/news/story/bernie-madoff). He put his finger on the reason why this is a crime perpetrated against every human being, of whatever race, creed or nationality: “Death of faith far more damaging than credit crisis” was his sub-heading, effectively summarising what he had to say. Many people and organisations have lost money, but everyone, include people clean of any direct or indirect exposure to the scandal, feels stained and, yes, poorer as human beings, on discovering that a person could systematically lie to, cheat and rob his friends, neighbours, business and social partners and acquaintances, co-religionists, and just plain folks – in that order! – all the while maintaining a façade of bonhomie, ‘genius’ and even integrity.

This affair has dramatic and far-reaching implications for the professions of banking, asset management and investment advisors, some of which I have addressed in my blog on the JP site. But they are not why the Jewish world is in crisis this week, from the mansions of Florida and the Hamptons to the humblest homes in Sderot and Jerusalem. Nor is it the lost money that has crushed Jewish spirits across the US and around the world.

Rather it is the realisation that it is not just the market that has collapsed, not just the economy that is going down the tubes. In the frantic race to get rich, richer, richest, American Jews (of every stripe) lost their moral compass – and the infection soon encompassed Israelis and most others too. Rabbis and other potential sources of moral leadership, who could and should have voiced open, consistent opposition to the moral collapse underway all around them, chose to either co-operate or remain silent. The rare individuals who spoke out, like the late and much lamented Mickey Rosen, were labelled ‘weirdos’ and marginalised. People who made lotsa money became role models, while people who could actually create money – bankers and investment gurus — were deified.

The financial system that grew up over 30 years has evaporated in the space of 18 months, taking with it not just the phoney money it spawned, but a far more basic requirement for economic activity, indeed for human existence – faith in people and the implicit assumption that what they say and do rests on a minimal moral base, in which doing deliberate harm to other people is unconscionable. Unlike financial assets, destroyed moral assets can’t be replaced by borrowing from someone else or simply printing more. They can only be rebuilt the long and hard way: by identifying and admitting the moral turpitude that permitted the disaster to happen and then developing clear new mores – not laws and regulations, rather the re-adoption of the lost concept of morally unacceptable activity and behavior. It will be tough, but there really is no choice. The survival of the Jewish people depends on it.

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